Changing a shapeshifter midstream (On the end of Socialism and/or Barbarism)

Dear Reader,

Those who have read or do read or do look at what has been been written, or photographed or arranged, for this project/not-so-alter-ego/archive may have noticed that it has of long late been added to with increasing infrequency.  And that when it has, it appears more and more like a handful of pages ripped indiscriminately from a scattered pile of books, with no explanatory reconstruction.

There are a number of reasons I might give for that.

One of the more reasonable ones is a focus on other writing projects, loosely book-shaped, which, broken into the form of this thing, would make even less sense than its normal contents and would, I suspect, descend even further into an arcane personal mnemotechnic.

A second reason is the strange torsion that comes from having been away from California, and the US more broadly, for what has been the most striking political - and self-eclipsing of "politics" in the name and practice of the material, the courageous, and the difficult - sequence in a lot more decades than I have lived.  We're largely accustomed to investment at a distance, where even word to gather and defend a space arrives on phones and screens.  Still, the genuine fact of a continental and oceanic distance produces a thrownness, as well as a nagging set of questions about what would be "of use" to write or say, in the broadest sense.

A third reason is that I now live in a city where - barring my brief forays into teaching Neapolitans how to say, "I am old.  You are drunk.  We are old.  We are drunk." - I do not speak any English, and my home tongue has come to feel as misshapen and unwieldy in my mouth as a shitty kiss.  A dead language of sorts to be read and written but not spoken.  And while S a/o B is not spoken but written, nevertheless, English and I are going through a "weird phase in our relationship."  We are not, so to speak, on speaking terms.

All of these reasons are true, in their way.  They are also false as explanatory devices for my relative distancing from this site, from what it was and what has been the alternately red, black, grey, blue, pink, gold, and neon orange thread of my thinking and practice of writing.

The far more adequate reasons have to do with what begins, certainly, as a particular relation to my particular uses of time and what, it seems, ultimately exceeds that relation, is caused by or captures some sliver of a sense of current modes of reading, writing, fighting, thinking, of trying to parse out this gorgeous and grotesque mess in which we live.

In short, it has to do with two forms of flattening and one of ephemerality which are necessarily linked to and bolstered by a form that tends to looks something like a blog.

The first flattening is a simple one, a visual one, even if its effects remain largely opaque.  Namely, that unless one wants to get into the sheer insanity of dancing GIFs, colored fonts, and winking emoticons familiar from old school chat rooms and "jokes to brighten your day!" emails forwarded and promptly deleted, a blog flattens its material into a unified shape, slots it into a single scrolling stream.  (Note: as a defender of communism as structurally a project of "bad taste," insofar as it is the flowering of the misuse of things, of going too far, of dwelling at the edges of the underutilized capacity of spaces, techniques, and material, I stand firmly in support of that insane frenzy of available styles.  It's no accident that so fucking gauche and far left mean basically the same thing.  The last thing we need is to shackle ourselves transhistorically to a cool minimalism.  Ahem, Tumblr.  Ahem, most of the design and layout that tends to get used for things "theoretical," "communist," "some hodgepodge of the two.")  One may make slight modifications.  But the same set of links, same background, same font, same time stamp, same address mark things that may be utterly heterogeneous.  Things therefore get themselves blogged, a verb that acts on them, not just as the location in which they appear but in how they appear, in how they can be read.

The second, more pernicious, flattening is that produced by the internet as such, visual in the way that sand in our eyes is visible: the basic fact of what it means to read something in the same browser window that contains, on different tabs, someone's Facebook account, a recipe for pan-seared salmon, news about streetfighting in Syria, a shitty editorial from the Guardian, work email, plane ticket searches, mediocre - or excellent - porn, a wikipedia entry on Carlo Emilio Gadda, Anarchist News, Youtube videos of a panda sneezing.  All things jostle for space and attention, and we are buffeted by a seriously tepid wind of distraction, with all the pleasures and low-level anomie it brings along.  Even as I write this, I find myself quietly jolted by emails - an old friend, some spam, the excellent newsfeed from Anthropologie du Présent - which don't even have to announce themselves.  We feel these things that ask us to consider them as we feel the hairs bristle barely on the back of our necks.

The ephemerality in question is Janus-faced, even if both faces are busy linking to the same webpage.

On one side, that of a reader.  (And one is never "just a reader" on the internet: one is invited, made able, encouraged to comment, share, alter, cross-post, and, last but far from least, "like" something publicly, as if shouting in an agora, filled with many thousands of people, at the top of your lungs HEY THAT IS GREAT THAT YOU KNOW OF A DURAN DURAN SONG THAT I ALSO ENJOY OR PERHAPS I DO NOT BUT I LIKE THAT YOU ENJOY IT ALTHOUGH EITHER WAY WHAT ACTUALLY MATTERS IS MERELY THAT MY APPROVAL WILL BE REGISTERED BY YOU AND BY OTHERS WHO PERHAPS DO NOT KNOW ME AND THAT AFTER ALL IS WHAT IS FRIENDSHIP IS IT NOT.)  Things stick around,  get remembered, have resonance, but because they are looked at - "read" is often too particular a word to describe what gets done - literally alongside, or briefly superimposed over, all those other instances of desired attention, they are ephemeral.  They get shuffled away, they get buried, they jut a bit from the surface, get tripped over, brought back into circulation, return back to the lostness of sheer, dizzying quantity.

On the other side, that of a writer who writes publicly and immediately.  The upshot of quick response brings with it a different kind of distractability: new information that keeps cutting into a line of thought, the distraction of something else that has just happened after the other thing that just happened, the sense that one has some "duty," if only to one's self and the phantom horde of possible respondents around which a self takes hold, to comment on things that fall in the rough arena of one's normal scope.  The urge to write briefly and frequently enough to stay on course, the sense that what  was relevant previously will now be of little interest to writer, reader, and everything between given that a new thing clamoring for our thought has stepped into the light.

These are all qualities which have been, and still are in certain ways or moments, both important and generative for me and many others.  I have, as some know, a passion for the flat, the superficial, and the ornamental: I think that even aside from its fraught spatial metaphor, the very notion of depth - and with it, profundity, authenticity, essence separable from manifestations, transcendence - is one on which war should be continually made, as its friendly fire has consistently wrought terrible consequences for theory, practice, art, social relations, and daily life alike.

More specifically, the first kind of flattening involves both a saving of time (find a template that works and let's stop dreaming that every single thing that exists needs to be sexily designed to be worth reading!) and, far more importantly, a wrecking of the hierarchy of subject matter.  Something may be longer or shorter, but it is still an entry in its own right, and therefore stakes a claim as being potentially equal to something extensive and well-thought through.  For what I've done, this is crucial, less because some of the shortest things I've written (or small sets of images) are of equal if not greater import than things that go on and on and more because it simply makes it harder to tell.  It goes a small way in busting the illusion of "substantive writing," which is, of course, something that matters enormously when it deserves to be substantive, but which should not hide behind its own bulk as a substitute for what is worth saying.

[accidents of continguous spaces]

The second kind of flattening further undoes, however slightly, the assumed importance of kind and scale and pushes further in another direction.  Because we are intruded upon (or better, because we actively put ourselves in a situation in which our attention will be interrupted), it allows for a primarily banal but occasionally striking blurring of the lines drawn between genres and media of reading.  Such that we may be reading Hegel, as some do, and suddenly we find ourselves watching footage from Yemen or a clip from a 1924 Swedish film, and - ever so rarely - these things cross-pollinate.  And they get marked, embedded, and invested differently: the fact that I read an email from my mom while reading Max Nettlau or read Max Nettlau while reading an email from my mom means, improbably, that the issues at stake in one or the other may spark differently, the needed questions may find a content never expected, the structures discerned or concerns raised may find proof or counter-argument outside the expected ambit.  I may not be able to tell Nettlau something of relevance - or, in the joy of friendship, something irrelevant, an imposition, an unwanted gift that reminds those we care about that we are constantly more than whatever we are at the moment of focused communication - that my mom wrote, given the unfortunate non-living status of Nettlau.  But I can write to my mom of something Nettlau wrote, something that struck me, something I think that may move her.

As for that ephemerality, it is perhaps what was, and perhaps continues to be, the most important aspect of the form of online writing.  Ephemerality is itself a slippery term and may designate far less than it appears to.  After all, the material publication of a book, the construction of a building or a monument, the committing to film is no guarantee whatsoever that something will last.  There have been plenty of those that did not last.  That is ultimately the crux of Adolf Loos' attack on ornament, as off as I think it to be in certain ways: something too marked to its present will cry out for its dismissal or forgetting, if not outright destruction.  And such is the properly ornamental stance of a blog, irrecuperably marked to and marked by the specific moments in which its posts emerge, and it points beyond itself to an understanding that what is ephemeral is not a consequence of its irrelevance but of its painful embeddedness.  As such, it is a mode of occasional writing capable of registering how we do not understand occasions as "just occasions."  We feel and think them as entire swathes of time, whole optics, tints that color our glance toward days passed or on the way.  Even if we can only grasp partially at scrambled fragments, even if that is all we ever do, nevertheless, these brief occasions we read and pass through are the history of the present as much as an extensively researched study can be.  The difficulty is only that we stay largely unaware that we are in the midst of reading this mosaic history: we treat it like the news, a keeping up with things, part of the morning, a check-up, a reminder.

 I think all this is true, and I have spent just over the past three years trying to make sense and the most of it.

Giovanni Tiso, long one of the sharpest people to read and banter with me on the basis of what I write here, wrote something a few months back about my work.  Fittingly, I meant to write a proper response to it and was instead distracted, in the middle of other things, busy changing physical spaces, excited about something else.  What he wrote was frankly surprising to me, not because of any misprision (other than my wariness about the term "activist," but we'll let that slide) but because, in the mode of the best critical engagements, he hit on something that I had been long feeling, something that underpinned all my work, but that I had not been able to articulate.

Namely, that what my work had been "about" - other, of course, than communism, horror, cinema, mechanized dolls that eat hair, cities, chipping frozen shit off the undercarriage of a train, salvagepunk, bones, value, camouflage, desire, looting, apocalypse, dirty thunderstorms, Wile Coyote, painting, decomposition, cosmic ice theory, decapitation, montage, living labor, melodrama, misanthropy, noir, love, radiation, Rome, acid baths, swagger, banality, Keith Sweat, wolves, stupidity, dialectics, and wallpaper - was generic form itself: the material forms of thought and the conceptual forms of matter.  As such, whether or not this has been "genre-defining," what I can venture from my end is an understanding, damn slow in coming, that not in spite of but because of the mix of materials assembled here, this project has been ultimately and always about the problem of genre.  The spark-throwing problem of not defining but passing through a genre and all that sits unstably in the forms and matters it inherits and shapes, all that comes to be precisely because of that recurrent incompatibility.  That is, genre doesn't describe what is: the very anxiety about what might be, and how it can be generated so as to be different enough to justify its existence yet similar enough to be processed and thought, is itself the generative action.

And in other words, that has been the axe on which I've ground, or found myself grounded, for a long while.  For this has been nothing so much as, or nothing more than, a shapeshifter, one that was meant to muck about in the blurriness of information and thought we always confront.  One which has aimed to enact that generative passage, less by taking that up as a topic than by doing it in the aggregate form taken by this long scattered mess of writing.  I imagine the consequences of this - the fact that the "thread" of this ranges through relatively direct film comments, very indirect film writing, horror fables, micro-slabs of theory, political announcements, photographs, translations, extended critical writings - have been of interest to some and to the utter distaste of more.  And perhaps some in between, who might have come "here" for thoughts on riots and have had to wade through fake postcards, theories of montage, unexplained film stills and likely stopped wading.  For those who came for the fake postcards or reflections on montage, sorry about all the riot stuff, but they are, you know, important.

 I have, at times, written explicitly of genre, particularly in the film vein, particularly through trying to make sense why the hell people don't recognize that much of what has fallen under the cultural industry mark of "genre films/literature" is much of the most compelling material we have to consider, tangle with, deploy, and enjoy.  And not just because of the enjoyment that comes from things with fangs, repetitive plots, cleavage, car chases, disguises, musical numbers, witty dialogue, and lighting that has no rational explanation whatsover.  Because beyond this, it's not in spite of its genre status but because of it that genre productions are - and I mean this deadly serious - the best cultural terrain to think through the lived structures of the world.  And again, not because we can see "the market" and its forces more clearly in them.  It is because the fraught terrain of trying to make something that will be understood as participation in a genre means that the fundamental problems of reproduction (of social relations, of labor, of gender, of politics, of race, of cultural tendencies, of religion, of the species) as such, all the blind going-on that is the cursed motor of society as such, are exactly the problems around which such a "genre production" will take largely absurd shape, over and over again.

An explanation of "what you do" is always less relevant than the actual texture of what it is that you do, especially when the need for such an explanation is a need felt only by yourself.  Nevertheless, I have some urge  to give some qualification of the 857 posts before this one.  I had, as do others, some basic motivations behind writing like this: the desire to not limit public access to writing to what has to be paid for, the desire to not have to wait for some other institution or publication to deem something worth sharing, the desire to produce things to circulate amongst a community, the desire to not limit things to that community.  None of that is particular to me.  It's what we do, the most minor part of taking seriously the attempt to make things like theory, literature, art, and historical analysis worth a damn.  The "public" is a cursed notion, existing only in opposition to the private and therefore with dirty hands in the perpetuation of such separation.  It is, however, a notion that we would be idiotic to ignore.

What is more particular to the lines of thought knotted up here over a couple years has to do with divisions of knowledge and the idea of expertise.  I am lucky to have very smart and very fierce friends.  A consequence of this is that for every single thing I "do" or "work on," I know very well someone who does or knows that thing far better than I do.  This makes me happy: it means I have friends worth having.

It also, however, speaks to a fundamental orientation to those things I do or think about.  Namely, I am what is pejoratively called a dilettante.  A nicer term is a jack of all trades.  Or polymath.  Or non-specialist.  But I prefer dilettante.  And if I am good at anything, it is only this: I am a skilled dilettante.  The word's roots lie in delectare, to delight.  To take pleasure in the things you think about.  Which is, after all, a good point of departure: to not draw such a clear distinction between is worth thinking and what gives pleasure, while still trying to toss out the mid-ground category of what you happen "to like."   The word also implies a scattered, shallow knowledge of many things.  There are instances, of course, in which such a stance should be meant as perjoratively as it has been: i.e. when one starts feigning expertise on things far more complex than a dilettante's knowledge could allow, when one trots out for the thirtieth time a single quote beaten into memory that mimes the place of a relevant complexity.  But when we put the stress not on the feigning (which is not particular to dilettantes, just to bullshitters in general, and yes, specialists can and do bullshit) but on the scattering, a different portrait starts to emerge.  It is a commonplace to say that the world has become more complex.  This isn't especially true.  What is true is the staggering expansion of mobility, at least in terms of what gets reported or what can be tracked down, and of access to an increasingly massive set of knowledge, conjunctures, fields of thought, objects.  Not to mention that every hour passed heaps on the pile of things to think about more information.

A mode of deep attention to particular fields and topics is necessary.  It always spills its ramifications beyond itself.  But so too another mode, which moves laterally, which is distracted, which is dilettante.  It is something like a handful of broken glass thrown across a frozen river: mostly skittering, mostly catching nothing, occasionally latching on, occasionally learning something in this glide over what is frozen below.  I have tremendous respect for, and benefit from, that mode of deep attention.  I try for it on occasion.  But this other mode is mine.

Such a mode would remain inadequate if it was not connected to practices.  It would be the equivalent of a compulsive reading of Trivial Pursuit cards or marathon bouts of Jeopardy watching.  For this reason, it has to do involve a learning and using of skills, trying to not limit ourselves to a field, an activity.  Many years ago, Benjamin wrote of something similar in regards to the newspaper as a necessary medium and practice and the need to "master the competencies in the process of intellectual production":

But we will pose this demand with the greatest insistence if we—writers—take up photography. Here too technical progress is the basis of political progress for the author as producer. In other words:the only way to make this production politically useful is to master the competencies in the process of intellectual production which, according to the bourgeois notion, constitutes their hierarchy; and more exactly, the barriers which were erected to separate the skills of both productive forces must be simultaneously broken down. When he experiences his solidarity with the proletariat, the author as producer also experiences directly a solidarity with certain other producers in whom earlier he was not much interested.

This is, despite some caveats about the notion of "solidarity with the proletariat," still entirely relevant today, precisely because the pseudo-demotic nature of the internet as a site and tool of "intellectual production" has generated a sham version of it, a version in which the elision of boundaries between practices too often leads to nothing more than a glut of banality.  Extended beyond the internet, this total picture results alternately in a terrifying storm of loggorhea and in the material publication of things of no interest whatsoever, which will come to constitute a real material interest (insistence that they get bought) and material presence (in the places of buying) that, at the end of the day, will come to constitute something that approximates interest.

But as always, such a sham version is not the reason to flee: it is the insistence that one has to dwell in that toxic muck and do it better.  In some way, I understand what I and others have tried to do as a version of this refusal to not flee.  Dirty hands are unavoidable.  The question is dirty with what.

For the heart of all this, however, is a massive failure, a conservatism in which I have been a part, willing or otherwise.  Namely, that this still constitutes something that I do, bound to my particular arrangement.  I would like to believe that this is a consequence of not having chanced into the correct constellation of those with whom I would write/film/design/think well, despite knowing many without whom I can do none of these.  I do believe that this will change.  At that point, I will happily watch what remains of my more determinately individual practice wither away.

However, the fact remains that things get shared, taken up, used otherwise at cross purposes, made part of an us.  And if we do not break the model of the individual author as much as we must, we can nevertheless still hold to fully working out the collapse of the hierarchy of those who get sanctioned as authors.  We want to hold toward forms of distribution and production of modes that are free, stolen, passed around. The fact of its banality does not mean that it is not a material practice with a real future.  And we can, as we build up the capacity toward that practice, equally commit to breaking that other hierarchy of who gets to write what and what gets to get read.  Such is the task of working out one version of the collapse of separation by the full blurring, cohabitation, and dilettantism of modes, styles, genres.

Nevertheless,  I find myself increasingly incompatible with the version or banner under which I was doing something along these lines.  I have never undestood this as a blog, other than when it was just getting going and I was therefore indebted to, beneath the sign of, or traveling alongside other things that more resembled "blogs."

Now it is fully not, as I am ending it, ending this thing. 

I could give further qualifications and reasons, but those will only be relevant and of interest if what follows shows itself to be substantively different.  It may not.  What matters is an attempt to become uncomfortable with what may have been a specific form developed here but which has come to feel too comfortable, too inherited.

As such, this blog will no longer exist as it has before.  Two things emerge in its place, which address partially the increasing incompatibility between - at least - two modes in which I work.

First, starting in January, a new online writing project called The Noonday Shadow, at a new location, which will allow for much better incorporation of chunks of film.  There will appear things that are, at least in their structure, closer to "essays."

 Second, Socialism and/or Barbarism will no longer be a blog but a publication.  Something between a series of books/magazines/journals/zines/posters.  This allows for intended delimitation and proximity of certain materials and questions (i.e. small continuities across a single issue, more restrained echoes that may take shape) and for the chance to actually change the form in a way that works with, or usefully against, the issues at hand.  Each one will be a collaboration with a different designer, a bit of amor fati in which I take my hands off and see what gets done with whatever I had in mind.  (If you happen to be a designer who would be interested in working with me on this, get in touch with me.)  They will be PDFs, as part of the understanding how we read such a thing differently.  Some may take paper form.  They will still appear on this site, starting in January.

Also here will be writings, should they happen, that seem important to be more immediately accessible and shareable, particularly regarding things of a political nature.

To all who have read what has been Socialism and/or Barbarism, a sincere and genuinely sentimental thanks for making my last years a lot better.  I hope that this has, in some small way, occasionally done that for you.  And hope that you will continue to read it as it mutates mid-stream.  It will continue to exist for the rest of my life, in whatever form seems right, until the moment in which what it is we do together makes this all beautifully irrelevant.




David K Wayne said...

Sad to see this go (?) as i know it, but look forward to what it may be replaced with.

In some way, I understand what I and others have tried to do as a version of this refusal to not flee. Dirty hands are unavoidable. The question is dirty with what.

Hopefully, this remains an open question. For waht it's worth, I think the 'public notebook' format still has some untapped potential (and no, I don't really get Tumblr either).

Here's to 2012.

John B-R said...

Thank you for everything. This has been one of my must read sites for quite some time. I will happily stick with you as this mutates. I hope that when the Noonday Shadow goes live you will provide a link.

Anonymous said...

"We feel these things that ask us to consider them as we feel the hairs bristle barely on the back of our necks."

I have indeed felt this page "asking" nearly every day of its existence - feels strange to read you framing it all in terms so close to the way that I had attempted to understand it, just in time to end it.

Looking forward to what happens next.

Joshua said...

You've always made me feel like an imbecile, making connections I wish I had come up with and presenting them in more evocative ways than I ever could, so my tender ego appreciates your decision. But every part of me worth a damn anxiously awaits the next incarnation of your work.

Anonymous said...

Who's shaking your cage?

ECW said...


"For waht it's worth, I think the 'public notebook' format still has some untapped potential (and no, I don't really get Tumblr either)."

Yes, I think it does as well. My decision to shift up my mode is not an attempt to declare dead an entire practice. I think all of us are a long way from doing what could be done with it. Some of the problem lies in the consistent gap between author and readers, which is badly answered either by "comment threads" (which can be lovely, but which still preserve the position of the author who is answering back, as I am doing now) or by "guest posts" (or "group blogs"). I don't doubt that others will continue to do more and more interesting things with the format. For me, however, it was reaching a point when I found myself more frustrated and less impelled by it. Comfort kills, and so I decided to murder my little darling, at least to see what sprouts from the neck stump.

John: yes, I will certainly provide the link, and thanks for reading. There will not be less that appears here: just in larger, concentrated, heterogeneous blocks.

Anon: those moments of cross-affect are precisely why I have written, for some sense that one may say something that is already bristling on the necks of someone else. I want to breathe down my own neck differently.

Joshua: I'm sorry I can't contribute to the always important of ego death with daily regularity. I'll try my damnedest to make the future incarations ones that take down the entire fleet of our collective egos.

Robinzon: I am rattling my own cage. Would be nice if I could lay the cause externally, but it is a party of one.

00000 said...

I'll run to keep up with your mutant as it goes. You've been a good influence on me and my way of conceptualizing the struggles, especially as I left the CWI to find a different kind of engagement. And if absolutely nothing else, you introduced me to The Bed-Sitting Room, which I really enjoyed.

But there's been more, and I look forward to whatever else it is you do in these directions. Thank you for sharing it.

Ursaminor said...

Definitely been following for a while, definitely always quality. Thanks for this, best of luck...

Lin Piao said...

I am the pontoon between the Ice Age and the Commune.

ECW said...


Müller has never been so right. Or never hewn so close far before my time to my fundamental fantasy: Steamboat Bill Jr. - having become indistinguishable from the object that gives him his name - rides the storm from extinction to negation.

[And from the stars as yet under Plough / Grows bread from their thirty-two teeth]

Weight Loss Buddies said...

A Paddling in Midstream: Songs New and Old Songs by Apirana Taylor Apirana Taylor is seer and shapeshifter, poet and soldier.